The Yoruba have a saying: One does not see the look on a leopard’s face and then taunt the leopard. That needlessness to invite disaster on one’s own head is what guides the people of Erinjiyan-Ekiti, in Ekiti West Local Government Area, when they take visitors to the Erin Ayonigba river. The attraction is the colony of sacred catfish, forbidden for consumption or even contact. At first, the water is calm, until bread is thrown in and the fishes appear en masse.
Like with Olore Hill, also in Ekiti State, local lore has it that it was a woman who became the river, and the town then took its name from it. “Erinjiyan,” a Sun report suggests, means “Erin river does not argue.” Subsequently, the fish in it, considered to be her children, have been accorded safety. The myth suggests that any fish from it would never get cooked, even after it died, however long it would stay on fire. And worse, its killer would die of poverty.
There are many stories around the river. The fish, they say, doesn’t see or eat bread thrown in by visitors with unclean or doubtful minds. The water, despite the ban on its fish, could be swum and used for cooking and washing. It could also be used for prayers; if given to people with unclean minds, it would pour or leak way or the pot might break. It is forbidden to boil water from the river or mix it with hot water. To take the water out of the town, at least one indigene must be informed. The palm trees by the river must also not be touched by cutlasses or knifes.
The female custodian of the river, called Iya Erin, appeases the goddess and sings to summon the fishes for visitors. She leads the celebration called Odun Olokun. In the olden days, women, virgins, wearing beads enter the river and dance around a palm tree, where a crocodile—some say python—is said to rest.
The Erin Ayonigba river, which at the moment is undeveloped, is an example of how myths play eco-friendly roles, allowing for the preservation of aquatic life.
Otosirieze Obi-Young is Editor of Folio Nigeria, where he profiles innovators and facilitators in culture: art, business, entertainment, activism, health, food. He is a writer, journalist, curator, media consultant, former academic, and Founder & Editor-in-Chief of Open Country Mag, a new online platform covering African literature. In 2019, he received the inaugural The Future Awards Africa Prize for Literature. In 2020, he was named among "The 100 Most Influential Young Nigerians" by Avance Media. Find him on otosirieze.com or on Twitter & Insta: @otosirieze.